One touchy subject

5th January 2007 at 00:00
How a headteacher coped when he was accused of manhandling a pupil

"MRS SMITH accuses you of assaulting her son - contacting the police." The message came towards the end of an all-day video conference with the National College for School Leadership. Discussion on how strong school leaders might help weaker ones suddenly took on a new meaning.

At lunchtime I had supported the duty team, tidying the queue and checking litter. I came across a large group in the sports hall foyer being pushed into a small space under the stairs. I restrained the ringleader from behind just as he was about to make another lunge. An enraged parent might just believe the story of a head grabbing their child and leaving bruise marks on his arm. The fact that her son had previously been excluded three times for violent assaults and had been involved with the police because of violence outside school meant that she knew her rights.

The unexpected visit from the chair of governors that night alerted me to the potential seriousness of the situation. As we trotted over to the sports hall to check the CTTV footage, I realised I was now an alleged aggressor rather than the rule of law.

As I was the main suspect, the police investigation had to be done without me. The child protection panel issued its usual demands for the head's suspension. My chair of governors bravely refused.

While the head feels he is no longer in control and at the mercy of others'

decisions, the process can destabilise governors. At a time when they wished to lend support and needed to be informed about what was happening, in order to reassure the community, the lights were switched off. They were plunged into darkness.

The allegation was a topic of conversation among students and parents, yet the rules prevented governors from knowing what was going on. As governors would hear the case, they had to be untainted, free from any knowledge of the event for the possible disciplinary panels. A letter to them warned of certain unspecified allegations against the head. They were not to ask questions or try to discuss the matter. Their imaginations were racing.

What had the head done? Fingers in the till? Internet porn?

The process dragged on for weeks. Two of my assistant heads rallied magnificently, organising the investigation. The police interviewed more than 60 witnesses. The time and labour involved were staggering.

Restraining a pupil known for violent bullying who was acting in a way that could have led to several injuries should not cause such shockwaves. To avoid the need for secrecy and isolation in such cases, perhaps governing bodies could collaborate. Disciplinary panels could be formed by governors from a different school. Every child interviewed supported my statement.

Weeks later, the Crown Prosecution Service informed the school that the case had been dropped. Patrolling the site will always be my territory. As for video conferencing, I'm not sure I'll try that again.

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College


That suspension should be a last resort rather than an automatic response.

External agencies should be able to fast-track investigations into alleged assaults.

Paired governing Bodies would enable a genuinely independent group to hear cases.

Alleged assault cases should be heard by the governing body of another school to ensure independence.

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